Foot binding was practiced in China on young girls, usually at age 4 to 6, for about 1,000 years, from the 10th to the 20th centuries. The toes on each foot, except for the big toes, were broken—bent under and into the sole—then wrapped with the heel as tightly as possible with a piece of cloth that had been soaked in warm water or animal blood along with certain herbs. Every few days, the binding would be changed and the feet rewrapped so that they could be squeezed into progressively smaller shoes. The goal was to shrink the feet as much as possible, with the most desirable foot being only about 3 inches long. The practice caused a number of serious problems. For example, the feet usually would bleed and often became infected. The binding also typically cut off circulation to the feet and flesh as well as toes would fall off. The process was extremely painful, and most women were physically crippled by it, making walking difficult and, for some, impossible. As they aged, women with bound feet were at high risk of falling and incurring injuries from such falls, and they also had greater difficulty squatting and standing up after sitting.
Several justifications were offered for foot binding. One was simply that in Chinese culture, tiny feet were considered feminine. A woman with unbound (i.e., natural) feet was considered sexually unattractive, more masculine than feminine. Future mothers-in-law would inspect the feet of their sons’ fiancés to ensure the young women did not have natural or “clown” feet. Foot binding was also a way to ensure that women remained chaste and faithful to their spouses in a culture that believed women were naturally lustful and lascivious. Inheritance was also important in Chinese society and was distributed along patrilineal lines.
Consequently, men wished to ensure the legitimacy of their heirs. A woman whose feet were bound literally could not “run around” on her husband. Finally, a woman with bound feet was a status symbol for men. An immobile woman could not engage in physical labor, so she was completely dependent on her husband for financial support. Having a wife with bound feet was a testament to a man’s wealth and privilege, signifying his financial ability to afford such a spouse. One might expect, then, that foot binding was limited to the upper classes in China. However, although the practice originated with the nobility, it was often copied by the less privileged who aspired to higher status.
With the advent of the Qing Dynasty in China in the mid-1600s, an effort was made by the Manchu emperor to eliminate foot binding. A tax was imposed on parents whose daughters had bound feet, and the practice was outlawed in certain regions. Nevertheless, the practice continued to be passed on from mothers to daughters for nearly another 400 years, since most people clung to the belief that bound feet were beautiful and beauty ensured a good and lasting marriage. In a society in which all roles other than wife and mother—or prostitute—are closed to women, women often would do whatever they deemed necessary for the personal and economic security of their daughters. It was under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen in 1911 that foot binding was officially eliminated in China, although it continued in isolated rural areas for several more years.
- Blake, C. F. (1994). Footbinding in neo-Confucian China and the appropriation of female labor. Signs, 19, 676–712.
- Dworkin, A. (1983). Gynocide: Chinese footbinding. In L. Richardson & V. Taylor (Eds.), Feminist frontiers (pp. 178–186). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
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